Let’s start with this one: “Your remodel will be finished on September 22nd at 1:17pm.”
Here’s another good one not to say: “Your addition will cost exactly $19,489.32”
The problem is, this is exactly what your customer wants to hear, which makes it very tempting to say. Every contractor wants to please their customers and give them the reassurance that their project is going to come in on time and on budget. Conversely, every customer wants to be assured that their project is going to be completed exactly as discussed. This is why it’s absolutely critical that you say the right things to your customers. Yes, honesty is always the best policy, but there’s the kind of honesty that’s going to maintain a great relationship with your customer, and the kind that will get you into trouble.
The Ambiguity Gap
As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. This is frighteningly accurate when it comes to communicating with your customers. The more detail you provide, the more that detail can come back to haunt you. Take our first example above. If you promise a job will be completed on September 22nd, but instead it will be finished on the 29th, your customer isn’t going to be happy that his four-month job came in within a week of schedule – he’s going to be angry and disappointed that you didn’t get it finished on September 22nd.
This is why a little ambiguity is important in your communications. Train your salespeople and your production people to use some ambiguity when they talk with customers. For example, a salesperson shouldn’t say, “I can do your roof repair for $3,250.” Instead, she should say, “That type of job typically costs around $3,000, give or take. Let me go back and build out the proposal and I’ll get something over to you.”.” This way, if the quote is $500 more, the customer won’t feel like there’s been some bait and switch.
Another tip: sales people should avoid talking specifically about production, and vice versa. Warn your crew about talking to your customer about pricing. Oftentimes, they don’t have knowledge of all the specifics that go into the cost of doing a job. This can lead to a breakdown in expectations.
Bear in mind that, as a contractor, you’ll need to understand and acknowledge that there IS a gap between what the customer perceives the interaction to be, what sales is promising them, what production is delivering them, and what they are ultimately being billed for. Successful contractors know this and, probably more importantly, the successful ones know how to work around it.
Systematize Your Communications
Just as you’ve created workflows and processes for other aspects of your business, it’s important to have a system for communication that reduces the perception gap. Create a bullet point script for your salespeople, emphasizing the top three or four ideas that need to be communicated to every customer, every time. If you can be even more specific than bullet points, that’s even better. However, the important part is that sales, estimating, production and accounting are all on the same page from the beginning of the bid process through job closeout..
There’s a trick that writers use to help emphasize a point that you may find useful in this case:
Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it, and then remind the audience what you just told them.
Here’s an example:
“Based on the scope of work you are requesting, we can get started in the next two to three weeks for $3,500. The work will take about three days to complete, unless we have any change orders or run into anything unexpected after we complete the demo. Based on what I am seeing, we should be able to get everything done for the $3,500 and get it done in the three days.”
See how that worked? You told the client what you’re going to say, you said it, and then you reminded the client what you just told them. There was enough ambiguity in the explanation to keep you out of trouble, but enough specificity to keep the client informed and happy. The more of these kinds of scripts you can create, the better. It’s time well spent to sit down with your team, go over the regular communications you have with your clients, and find a way to systematize them.
The One Trick That Makes It All Better
It’s a phrase that’s as old as business itself but still rings true: underpromise and overdeliver. Again, this isn’t about lying to your clients or exaggerating costs: it’s about setting expectations. Don’t paint yourself into a corner by promising anything you might not be able to deliver. Quite the opposite: if you can set a certain expectation with your client – and she’s satisfied with that expectation – but you know you can do even better, then do it. You want to be the hero. You want the client to go on Yelp and give you five stars and rave about your work. Make this happen by delivering to the client what you know you can deliver consistently, not because you ate $1,000 in costs and put in 30 hours of overtime.
A major factor in setting expectations is explaining contingencies to your clients. For example, when you’re creating a bid to repair storm damage after a hail storm in mid-January, it’s critical to let the client know that the costs and work schedule are contingent on the weather cooperating. Again, this is where we come into systematizing communications: the entire team should know the specific kinds of contingencies that are inherent in each type of job, and should have a communication script for each one. This assures that your entire team – and the client – are on the same page.
By learning what not to say to your customers, and designing systems to say the correct information instead, you’ll not only streamline your business but create happy clients as well.